Sunday, 9 January 2011

The State of the English School System - A Personal and Historical View

For centuries, if not millennia, it seems that those in power were suspicious of learning by the masses. For example, the first English vernacular Bible got its translator, John Wycliffe and those that proselytised it, the Lollards, into serious trouble and it was often cited as the prime motivator for the Peasants’ Revolt and was particularly influential for its leader Wat Tyler. Better for society to keep the Word of God in Latin and have the Church as the only access to it, they thought.
All over the world, societies at certain points in their development have taken to book burning, which suggests a deep conservatism and a fear of ideas. Whether it is the burning of the library at Alexandria, the burning of books by various Chinese emperors, in 1930s Germany and even in the US in 2010, the motif runs consistently through history.
Stephen Fry, in the Star’s Tennis Balls has the main character claiming that the English were always suspicious of ideas and learning. It is easy to see his point, the English for centuries were a nation of doers; busy shaping the world in its own image. It is easy to see the effects of this busy-ness, English (ironically) is the planet’s Lingua Franca, the idea of the sovereignty of the rule of law, the global financial system. I could go on and we could argue the points, but suffice to say, there is strong evidence for England’s lasting legacy to the world.
On the other hand, for a nation of doers suspicious of ideas, the English have produced an astonishing number of people of ideas who are seminal to our modern understanding of the universe and all its glories. Think here of Boyle, Newton, Paine, Wollestencroft, Priestley, Dalton, Darwin, Rutherford (alright, he was a Kiwi of Scots decent – but we claim him, since he worked in UMIST), Keynes, Turing, Whittle and others.
All of the above came from similar, more elevated class backgrounds. It was only in the 19th C that working people had a fascination for learning for its own sake, for as we would say, personal development, rather than for its utility. This was the Sam Smiles era of self-help; lectures were the TV of the day and Exhibitions were their movies. The Working Men’s educational institutes stand testimony to this.
The Industrial Revolution required a better educated workforce, which led, inexorably to the Foster Education Act of 1870. This act effectively ensured compulsory, elementary education for all children between five and thirteen, but there was still no idea that equality of opportunity to aid social mobility should be the purpose of education. A good education was still the preserve of the Public Schools and of the few extant universities, and therefore the preserve of the upper and upper-middle classes.
The great upheaval of the Great War, or the Boss’s War, as it was known in some circles changed everything. The Labour movement and Trades Unions really got underway and the intellectual arguments of the 19th C socialist thinkers, like Engels, Marx, Hardie and Sidney and Beatrice Webb found a powerful resonance among the working people as the real creators of the wealth, upon which the higher classes were based. The 19th C flowering of a grass-roots education system of the working men’s institutes withered away to a great extent, largely due to education being seen as aping the higher social echelons. Since the working people had now the opportunity to access power and better living conditions, and since they considered themselves the creators of all wealth, the only education needed was that provided for by the 1870 Act and apprenticeships. There was, in this period the greatest pride in being working class, due to the solidarity of the unions and the certain knowledge that they were the creators of wealth.
The Great War, Part Two, otherwise known as World War Two brought about another great social upheaval. After Part One, the promises of those in power of ‘a land fit for heroes’ for those fighting in the great slaughter as an incentive to keep on being slaughtered, turned out to be almost entirely hollow. The same promises were made for those engaged in the sharp end of Part Two, but this time, the Government of National Unity contained Labour cabinet ministers resulting in the Welfare State, socialised housing and the 1944 (Butler) Education Act.
The Butler Act provided for state funded grammar schools based on competitive entry. The grammar schools were highly academic and were to prepare children from poorer backgrounds for university entrance. Effectively, this was providing a Public School education for lower-middle class and working class children, and the examination that allowed entry, the Eleven Plus, was a scholarship examination and the scholarship being provided by the state. Similarly the state provided a means tested scholarship for those students who passed enough GCE A’ Levels with good grades. The state also set up more universities (and polytechnic colleges for students who did not quite get the grades for university). These new universities based their degree standards on those of the established universities and therefore were very high.
For those grammar school students not destined for university would generally leave after taking GCE O’ Levels in up to ten subjects generally. One could start on many administration and managerial careers with O’ Levels as well as entry into teacher training college and higher technical careers like computer operating and programming.
For those that did not gain entry into a grammar school, there were the Secondary Modern schools were the leaving examinations taken at the end of fifth year (year 11, grade 10) were the CSEs. These schools were for those destined for apprenticeships at best. Some of the best students from Secondary Moderns who had five or more CSEs at A grade could transfer to a grammar school to take A’ Levels, since an A grade at CSE was equivalent to a C grade at O’ Level. This, however, was rare.
To a very great extent, the dramatic change in the social landscape of the 1960s was due to those of a lower social class getting educated to a good university level. The Satire Boom, populated to a large degree with grammar school oiks, dispelled the last of an anachronistic class deference. The leading lights of the Counter Culture, whose effects have such a great effect on the world today, were drawn largely from the same social milieu.
For those that attended a grammar school, the system was undoubtedly a resounding success, despite how much they might complain about it now and despite the sometimes withering disdain from teachers who were largely drawn from Public Schools and old universities. For those in the Secondary Modern schools, the system provided for little or no social mobility, social levelling or anything meritocratic. Secondary school for this cohort was often deemed pointless and since many of them went on to have jobs that supported families, it is difficult to argue that their schooling had any relevance for them.
No sooner had this system been set up, it started to have its critics and detractors. The language employed in the examinations was a form of English that was the almost exclusive preserved of the academic, largely middle and upper classes. Therefore, the form of the language used by the teachers was the same. To carry out IQ tests on children at such a young age was fraught with problems. Children mature intellectually at different rates, the nature of intelligence and to brand children at such a young age as not very bright can only be socially divisive. Mostly though, the grammar school system was seen as a state subsidy for the middle class.
To assuage the possible danger of this social division, the Comprehensive School was conceived. Those that thought the grammar school system was a subsidy, were to some extent vindicated by the flight of children of the more prosperous middle class families into the independent and Public Schools. Comprehensive schools still ran the GCE O’ Level and CSE examinations and students were set by ability in each subject.
By 1977, the school system was seen as still not doing what it should and that since a changing world requires its education systems to change prompted the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan to call for The Great Debate. This debate came to fruition as the 1988 (Baker) Education Act which set up The National Curriculum and the GCSE examination system to replace CSEs and GCE O’ Levels.
The new GCSEs were to be taken by all year 11 students. In the first year of the exams, those that would have done well in the old O’ Levels did well in the GCSEs, but everyone else did very poorly. In this sense the new exams were a failure. The next year, grades improved, since the exams were easier. In subsequent years they became easier still.
When Tony Blair declared that his three greatest priorities were education, education, education, he set in train a process of micro managing of education that has removed autonomy from teachers and imposed a mechanistic approach to developing the idea of supplanting memorisation for education. The once world renowned gold standard of the GCE A’ Levels have been diluted to such an extent that they are below the standards of those required at the same age in most of the rest of Europe.
As a means of effecting equality, this trivialising of examinations has definitely been a success, even though governments, exam boards and teachers (publicly) claim that the inexorable increase in the numbers of A’ Level successes is down to better trained teachers and better teaching methods. This is the emperor’s new education system. Anyone who thinks that the modern A’ Levels are equivalent in rigour, breadth and depth have only to do their own comparisons.
This attempt at equality is a simplistic and cynical ruse. The reason why middle class children do better academically is because, like most children, much (if not most) of their education happens outside the classroom. Middle class children spend their time, therefore in more academically oriented milieu. No education reform has addressed this advantage and our education system will continue to fail our children until it is.
Many of the education reforms have been a result of society’s common view of teachers, eloquently summarized by G.B. Shaw in Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists. However Bel Kaufman in Up the Down Staircase states it more accurately, “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Like most sayings, this is only half true. Those who can, teach; those who can't -- the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields -- find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”
Those who can; the good teachers have had the same traits and practices for centuries, if not millennia. The overriding principal is in loco parentis, meaning to have the same duty of care as the best example of a parent. How this is interpreted is to encourage their students with warmth, affection and inculcating a sense of belief and self-confidence. How this should be manifest is the student should feel that the teacher enjoys their company both within and without the formal learning environment. The student should be encouraged to ask questions when they have questions. Disciplining of students is done in proportion and done with great care to preserve the dignity of the student. Of course, being an effective teacher and setting work that is challenging and that is marked within an appropriate time and for which appropriate feed-back given. A good teacher identifies individual needs and should be prepared to go beyond the call of duty to address these needs, if they cannot be addressed within the normal course of things. Lessons should be well structured and planned, but a good teacher will allow their students to take control of their own learning and be prepared to change the lesson to make use of a learning opportunity and re-schedule and re-organize the lesson that was intended to take account of the impromptu lesson’s content. The teacher should be able to appeal to their students’ natural rational abilities to set the material to be taught into, rather than expecting rote learning. Above all, the student should feel that they are very welcome company for the teacher and to be a believable, three dimensional character – a real person that is an achievable role model. To do all this requires the best and brightest of our society, and not just on paper qualifications. No change in the training of teachers can legislate for this, although they have tried.
Instead, what we have done is to churn out teachers that are more technician/bureaucrat who have little time for the core tasks, to make the connections that facilitate the core task or to deviate from the treadmill of the curriculum to take up a learning opportunity proffered by students’ enthusiasms. In this sense, the cultural paradigm of the characteristics of a good teacher have changed. This change is reflected in students’ expectations of teachers and the educative process in that they expect the bite-sized memory tasks from a technician and do not expect a relationship with the teacher.
The cynicism referred to above is that the English people have been sold a bill of goods. We were enticed to send our children to university so that they would get better graduate jobs. Unfortunately, there was no concomitant increase in the number of these graduate jobs to match the dramatic rise in the number of graduates. This means that most of our degrees are worthless, except that a degree is now required to get almost any job now, but it costs parents and the students a small fortune. The real graduate jobs are still going to those that obtain degrees from the ancient universities, the 19th C universities and the universities founded in the early post war years. Our new universities have more to do with bums on seats and less to do with a university education. They deal solely with utility and not with universality that honours education as an end in itself. How many students in these new universities have, know or have tutorials with their personal tutor?
The argument that graduates earn more in their working lives compared to non-graduates is like that for priority boarding on Ryanair. If everyone has it, then it is no advantage.
Time to re-think in a time when 70% of new high-tech jobs in the UK go to those educated in other systems. Check were the UK stands in the PISA Study rankings . . .

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